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Blog

Academics and the other 96%

Climbing the academic pyramid

By Margaret Harris

Like most physics students, I initially thought that getting a PhD would lead me to a career in academia. But also like most physics students, that isn’t how it worked out. In fact, data collected by the Royal Society in 2010 show that more than 96% of PhD-qualified scientists pursue careers outside academic research, with most finding work in the wider, non-research economy, while a significant minority are employed in government labs or industrial R&D.

The implications of that 96% figure – including how it affects the prospects and plans of early-career researchers; what it says about advice and training for PhD students; and its likely effects on science as a whole – are the subject of an in-depth article in this month’s Physics World graduate careers focus. You can also download an entire special section on graduate careers (including more than 10 pages of adverts for jobs both inside and outside the university environment).

As I learned while researching the article, the real problem with that 96% figure is that it conflicts so sharply with another statistic: 46% of new physics PhD students want to work in a university. Put those two numbers together, and they add up to a lot of disappointed and frustrated early-career physicists. And let’s be absolutely clear: these are not, by and large, people who “couldn’t cut it” in a research environment; it’s just that, statistically, not everyone can climb to the top of the academic pyramid.

Opinions are, naturally, divided over what (if anything) should be done about the apparent oversupply of PhD physicists relative to the number of long-term jobs in academic physics. If you have suggestions or if you want to share your experiences, please do so via the article’s comments area.

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